Swallowing Mercury Explores the Macabre Beauty of Childhood

Wioletta Greg’s novel, longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize, follows the interior life of a young girl during the waning days of the Polish People’s Republic.

A girl stands in front of a setting sun
Nikola Solic / Reuters

Wioletta Greg’s story begins with waiting. “A christening shawl decorated with periwinkle and yellowed asparagus fern hung in the window of our stone house for nearly two years,” her young narrator tells us. “It tempted me with a little rose tucked in its folds, and I would have used it as a blanket for my dolls, but my mother wouldn’t let me go near it.” The shawl, we learn, is “a memento” symbolizing the absence of the narrator’s father, who was arrested for deserting from the army shortly before her birth. From the child’s-eye view, this ritualistic object takes on an aura of mystery and possibility. It clearly looms large among the adults—proof of a family’s religious piety, a show of support for an act of dissidence, and a sobering reminder of its consequences. Yet from where the young Wiola sits, the shawl has the allure of a plaything, a prop for make believe.

Gently and efficiently, Greg has, in the space of a single page, given us ample introduction to Wiola’s private world, and to the historical moment into which she was born. Outside, in the fictional village of Hektary, somewhere in the Jurassic Highlands of southern Poland, seasons change and ducklings hatch. One day:

When the christening shawl had faded and the periwinkle leaves had fallen onto the windowsill, a thin man with curly hair and a little moustache came into our house. After he saw me, he cried for a whole day, and he calmed down only when Poland started playing in the World Cup.

Only later does Wiola begin to call the man “Daddy.”

Much of Swallowing Mercury—Greg’s 2014 debut, translated into English this year by Eliza Marciniak—is composed of such scenes, quiet yet evocative, mundane yet vivid. Greg, who is a poet, writes sparely and evenly, attentive to detail but not overly reliant on it for metaphor or moral. In short chapters she strings together an episodic portrait of Wiola’s childhood that is at once familiar to anyone who’s been young and entirely specific to the experience of being young in the waning years of the Polish People’s Republic.

Without revealing years or ages outright, the book provides subtle cues about the passage of time in Wiola’s family, in the village, and in the larger world that Greg keeps obliquely yet palpably in the background. (Marciniak, in a translator’s note, helpfully explains several of the public events that Greg refers to, among them the Solidarity movement, the imposition of martial law, and the collapse of the Soviet Bloc.)

“Disobeying my mother, I started sleeping with Blacky,” Wiola says at the start of the second chapter, delivering a jolt—one that propels us further into the interior life of a girl who is hardly lonely yet very alone. Blacky, we quickly learn, is a cat. Wiola’s rural childhood is marked by a scarcity of children; she lives with her parents and grandparents, who are frequently preoccupied with their own concerns, and human playmates are few and far between. But she has an ally in the cat:

I spent the whole summer roaming the fields with Blacky. He showed me a different kind of geometry of the world, where boundaries are not marked by field margins overgrown with thistles and goosefoot, by cobbled roads, fences or tracks trodden by humans, but instead by light, sound and the elements.

Throughout, Wiola draws on her powers of observation—honed by solitude—to keep herself company, finding wonder and strangeness within, and often beyond, the trappings of daily life that her busy cohabitants take for granted.

When Blacky drowns in a pond, Wiola goes silent for a week, only whispering to herself. “There was nothing strange in that, really, since everyone in our house was always whispering or singing something under their breath,” she notes. “But when I muttered or sang to myself, everyone would glance at me with surprise.” For Wiola, murmured prayers, her father’s “Elvis songs and prison ballads,” her mother’s anxious humming—all taking place in the “constant semi-darkness because of the fuses blowing, or the power station introducing energy-saving measures”—make up the fabric of a life that, though she doesn’t say as much explicitly, is as stifling as it is familiar. “We sat in the glow of the stove like prehistoric insects frozen in amber,” she recalls.

Wiola’s awareness does not constitute a political consciousness, exactly. But she picks up on contradictions—darkness at the dawn of the 21st century, Communist dictates at odds with communal traditions—that reveal big political currents rippling in her remote outpost. Why do Wiola’s grandmother and mother host women from the village as they sew pennants to decorate the town in anticipation of a papal visit? Why are “the men whose task it was to destroy the decorations” prepared to do so as soon as they are put up? Why—not that Greg asks this, or that Wiola thinks of it this way—is Catholicism so central to a culture that officially rejects it? The pope, it turns out, was planning all along to fly overhead in a helicopter. He wouldn’t have seen the decorations anyway. Gradually, Wiola sees more clearly the ways in which Hektary, bound by local customs and the realities of Soviet Communism—those “fences or tracks trodden by humans”—circumscribes the future its residents can envision. Her eventual departure seems inevitable.

But that departure is outside the scope of this novel, in which Greg manages a masterful blend of immersion and detachment. What, ultimately, is Wiola waiting for? Perhaps nothing more than a kindred spirit, someone who can see what she sees. Her parents certainly don’t, but with Greg’s help, a reader might. “This ghastly bird is the last,” her mother insists, banishing her husband and his taxidermy hobby to the barn. Then, Wiola narrates, deadpan, “She went back to the kitchen and began to singe a plucked hen over the stove.” One parent thinks birds are for carefully preserving and displaying; the other wants only to consume them and move on. When it comes to memory, to her childhood, Wiola wants to do both: to reconstruct the macabre beauty of the past—but to do so unsentimentally, to use it as subversive imaginative fuel. Who says the shawl can’t be both relic and toy?

In March, Swallowing Mercury was longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize, a remarkable feat for a first novel. Its English title puts the emphasis on Hektary’s occasional dangers, its shadowy corners. Yet the original Polish title is perhaps more fitting: Guguły, which translates as “Unripe Fruit,” conveys a sense of organic potential, its full expression as yet unrevealed. Where one title contains a threat, the other offers at least the promise, if not the assurance, of sweetness in due course. As Wiola’s father tells her wistfully near the end of this poignant book, he may look old to the outside world, but “inside I’m like an unripe fruit.” Her task, which she has already begun, will be to ripen fully.